Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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So you don’t want the government in your kitchen

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According to Wikipedia, “A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, often a state.[1] A government is like a clan with the purpose to govern the whole family or whole nation with powers of financial, military and civil laws. The main purpose of government is to seek the welfare of the civilians and to fulfill their need for the betterment of the nation.”

Canadians have a poor understanding of government. This comes as no surprise to me as I frequently see people complaining that the government should merely educate people about making healthy choices rather than introducing legislation that would make it easier for us to make healthy choices and/or harder to make unhealthy choices.  People want the government to stay out of their kitchens, shopping carts, restaurants, etc. This attitude shows a great deal of privilege, and ignorance.

To be able to afford to choose what we want to eat when we want to eat it is a measure of privilege. There are many people in Canada (and other countries) who don’t have that luxury. People who have no choice in what they eat, who can only afford or access limited options, people who go hungry.

Policies, subsidies, taxes (and tax breaks), legislation, and tariffs are all factors influenced by government that impact how much we pay for various products. Unlike something like a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, the consumer doesn’t directly see the effect of these factors on the price they pay at the cash register so they often don’t even realise just how much the government is influencing the cost of food. Also, there is a certain judgement value that comes with a tax like a SSB tax; taxes such as this are often referred to as “sin taxes”.

Yes, elected officials serve us and we essentially hire them to represent us in government. However, it’s also their job to “seek the welfare of the civilians”. So, what should the government do when our desires “I want to eat chips and drink pop for breakfast, lunch, and supper” are diametrically opposed to our welfare? It’s a tricky question. I certainly don’t want the government telling me what I can and can’t eat; and I’m a dietitian! I also know that education is not the (sole) answer.

Most people have a decent understanding of which foods they should be eating more of, and which they should be eating less of. Simply telling people to eat more vegetables and drink less pop is unlikely to result in any change in eating habits. I do think the government has a role to play in helping us to adopt healthier eating behaviours.

In terms of education, rather than simply promoting messages and plastering billboards telling us what foods to eat (or to limit) or putting calories on menus (ahem), the government should be making food literacy a mandatory component of the curriculum in schools. Children should be learning where food comes from, how to prepare it, how to read nutrition facts panels and ingredient lists, and how to find credible nutrition information in a sea of goop.

Beyond education, the government should be looking at the factors that influence our food choices. The most commonly cited of these factors are: access, affordability, time, and personal preference. A little brainstorming about these:

  • Access: there could be legislation about where fast food outlets can be located and ensuring there are grocery stores, markets, or convenience stores stocking nutritious foods to serve all communities. Many grocery stores are now offering delivery options; perhaps the government could support these initiatives.
  • Affordability: while it’s a bit of a myth that healthy eating has to be expensive, there can be more of an up-front cost to purchasing food for a healthy meal than there is to buy a burger and fries. In addition to creating policies and subsidies that would make healthier foods such as fresh produce more affordable, the government could also look to the creation of affordable housing, better transit systems, and basic income guarantees (BIG) so that people have more money in their pockets for nutritious food.
  • Time: part of the food literacy education in schools would serve to show people that it is possible to make a quick, healthy, and tasty meal. In addition to this, the government could pass legislation around work hours so that more people could have flexibility in their days and more time to prepare food. BIG would also support this as it would provide value for labour in the home. If our society put more value on food preparation and family meal times then as individuals we would be more likely to put in the time to cook and eat together.
  • Personal preference: this is a little trickier for the government to address. However, given the other measures, I think that an increase in appreciation for nutritious food would follow. If parents have more time and money and access to nutritious food, then they’d be more likely to choose these foods. Particularly if they’ve had exposure to these foods from a younger age through things such as food literacy education in schools.

The government is already in your kitchen, in your shopping cart, in restaurants, on the farm, in the grocery store. No one is saying that the government should ban the consumption of pop, or any other food. Rather than removing personal choice, legislation can serve to give more choice to those who are currently limited by their circumstances, and make it easier for all of us to make healthier choices.


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Of logical fallacies and opinion pieces

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I wrote the following in response to this Postmedia opinion piece that was published a couple of weeks ago. I did send it to them in the hopes that they would publish it. Unfortunately, I never received a response so onto the blog it goes!

In reading the Point of View Focus on food costs, not advertising bans from Postmedia Network I couldn’t help but wonder if it was written solely to elicit reaction. After all, who could genuinely be opposed to revamping Canada’s Food Guide so that it’s more user-friendly and based on the most current scientific evidence? Who could be opposed to banning advertising of unhealthy foods to children?

The writer sets-up the issue as a false dichotomy. The reader is left feeling that in order to be supportive of efforts to improve food access in the North that they must be opposed to efforts to improve nutrition labelling across Canada, revise the Food Guide, and ban food advertising to children. This is not the case. These are all important issues facing our country and to support some of them does not mean that you are opposed to others. Bringing up the lack of access to affordable food in Northern Canada is a logical fallacy. It’s irrelevant to the matter at hand and only serves to derail the conversation. 

Despite what the author says, the government would not be “pre-empting the work parents have traditionally done, which is watching their children’s diets all by themselves” by implementing a ban on advertising of unhealthy food to children. In fact, the government would simply be supporting parental efforts to foster healthy eating habits in their children through such a ban. With the majority of Canadian children not meeting current minimum recommendations for consumption of vegetables and fruit, clearly the current method of allowing food companies to market to children while parents attempt to fend off the never-ending flow of food marketing is not working. The effectiveness of the advertising ban in Quebec shows that such bans can encourage healthier eating habits in children. Such a ban does not remove the role of parents; it simply supports their efforts to raise healthy eaters.

As for Canada’s Food Guide, many criticisms have been launched against it over the years. However, it’s an important tool for dietitians and teachers to promote healthy eating patterns in children and adults. Unfortunately, the criticisms of The Guide have served to cause many to disregard all of the guidance contained within. Revising The Guide to reflect the most current scientific evidence and responding to public and educator concerns will help to make it a more effective tool, and thus, improve the eating habits of Canadians.

As a registered dietitian, I applaud the efforts of our government to provide a healthier food environment for Canadian children and to promote healthy eating habits among Canadians of all ages. I also encourage the government to address issues of food access and affordability across the country through measures such as increased access to affordable fresh vegetables and fruit, basic income guarantee, and living wages.